The Shotgun and the Pistol

Warren Moon runs the shotgun for the Oilers.
Warren Moon runs the shotgun for the Oilers.

Gin Ellis/Getty Images

These are two offensive formations that are being utilized frequently by high school, college, and pro teams. So what are these formations all about?

Shotgun Formation

The shotgun formation is one that has the quarterback lined up 5 to 7 yards behind the center. The center snaps the ball through the air back to the quarterback at the start of the play. Over the last decade, the shotgun formation has been utilized more and more, as teams have become more and more pass focused. A big advantage to the shotgun formation is having the quarterback already in position to throw the ball when he receives the snap. This is much different than an "under center" snap, where the quarterback would have to drop back before being in position to throw. 

The shotgun developed from the old single wing formation. It was used very little in professional football and the NFL, though the New York Jets used it some to help gimpy-kneed quarterback Joe Namath avoid the rush.

Roger Staubach and the Dallas Cowboys were the next to employ the formation with any frequency and they made it to the Super Bowl using it. After the success the Cowboys had, other teams started using the shotgun.

It caught on in the 198-s and 90s when the NFL had evolved into more of a passing league, and now almost every team has it in its offensive arsenal, and use it at some point, though they normally take most snaps under center.

It is a very popular formation in college football. Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer popularized it at the University of Florida; the team won the national championship with it and Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.

The formation is very effective with a quick, agile quarterback who has the ability to run as well as pass.

Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III, and Cam Newton are good examples of this type of quarterback.

However, the formation also gives quarterbacks a wide view of the field and more conventional, drop-back quarterbacks have also used the shotgun with great effect.

Examples of this would be Peyton Manning, Drew ​Brees, and Russell Wilson.

Pistol Formation

The "pistol" formation also has the quarterback taking a deeper snap from center. However, in this formation, the quarterback lines up only about 3 or 4 yards behind the center, with a running back behind him. The pistol formation also continues to be utilized as teams try to gain any edge over their opponents. The pistol formation gives an offensive scheme more options at the snap of the ball. It's an easier run formation than the shotgun because the quarterback is not the deepest back. However, it still allows the quarterback to get the ball in throwing position quickly for timing routes.

One disadvantage to these formations is, unless a team uses them consistently, trends and patterns can develop that make play prediction a little easier for the defense. But both the pistol formation and the shotgun formation have opened up the game of football and made things more exciting to watch.